Coincidence and the Sentimental Novel

I was recently re-reading one of my favorite books published this year. In order to avoid spoiling it for anyone, I’ll omit the title, but one of the plot lines hinges on a rather large coincidence: two characters who weren’t previously acquainted meet and form a connection in a town where neither is supposed to be, thus setting the rest of the plot in motion.

There’s a time when this would have annoyed me. When I was in high school and first read Dickens, I turned into a rant-y, whiny beast as only a fifteen-year-old can. “What,” I seethed, “are the odds that Darnay and Carton would be doppelgängers! Not to mention that Lucie’s father unknowingly condemned the family of her intended! What are the flipping odds!”

Obviously, A Tale of Two Cities was the source of my initial ire with Dickens. We won’t even acknowledge the time I read Oliver Twist, though certainly the people I complained to loudly and longly have not forgotten it.

It took until graduate school for me to understand that Dickens wasn’t just commenting on the presence of coincidence in real life (the Sacagawea meeting her brother coincidence still astonishes me; talk about long odds) or indulging in some sloppy plotting. No, in placing coincidence at the center of his books, Dickens was using the sentimental to comment on the interrelated state of humanity.

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